Yida project includes plans for a manufacturing hub, but opponents warn construction is decimating coastal vegetation
Plans to construct a sprawling Chinese colony complete with factories, homes and holiday resorts across a pristine marine reserve in Antigua have ignited a storm of controversy on the Caribbean island.
Known locally as the Yida project after its main investor, Yida Zhang, the scheme includes plans for a manufacturing hub which promises several hundred jobs and increased exports.
But opponents, including local activists and environmentalists, warn that construction is already decimating valuable coastal vegetation, threatening the habitat of critically endangered animals and putting the island at greater risk of hurricane damage.
Chinese-funded development and infrastructure projects often delivered via low-interest loans are not new in the Caribbean.
What sets the Yida project apart in addition to its sheer size, which spans more than 2,000 acres is that Chinese investors have been given a license to establish their own special economic zone for the new communitys residents and businesses who will benefit from tax waivers.
Under an agreement signed in 2015, developers are entitled to set up a seafood harvesting company within the zone and net 90% of the profits. The zone is also free of all taxes levied elsewhere in the country, including income tax, sales tax and import and export duties. Anyone investing more than $400,000 will be eligible for Antiguan citizenship.
That has caused dismay among some locals, who liken the zone to a colony.
It will operate like a state within a state, said George Wehner, who grew up close to the area. It will totally change our way of life. Fisherfolk have relied on these waters for generations; its one of our most important breeding grounds for marine life and destroying it threatens our food security.
Last June, Antigua and Barbuda became the first country in the eastern Caribbean to sign up for Chinas Belt and Road initiative, a global trade project consisting of a network of ports, railways, tunnels and other infrastructure.
Newly constructed buildings are already clearly visible on the razed landscape of Antiguas north-east coast. From the water, work appears well under way on the gargantuan development, the heavy machinery juxtaposed against the surrounding untouched cays.
The master plan includes up to seven resorts, a shipping port, the countrys first four-lane highway, offshore wealth management centres, hospital and university facilities, a school, bank and a luxury golf community on adjacent uninhabited Guiana Island. The 400-acre industrial section includes steel and ceramic tile factories.